He can't read or write, but Zumra Nuru created a society that would have made Karl Marx proud. The 60-year-old Ethiopian farmer founded and cochairs Awra Amba, a commune where men cook, women plow, and religion has no place.
His inspiration came from his childhood: He was sent to the fields instead of to school and beaten for eating meat at his Christian neighbor's home.His mother had to work much more than his father.
"It made me sad," says Mr. Nuru. "When I asked my parents about it ... they acted as if I were foolish."
In the 1980s, Nuru finally launched the egalitarian society he dreamed of with 19 other people who adopted his vision.
Today Awra Amba has some 400 members and is lauded as a model to alleviate poverty and promote gender equality in a country where women generally hold a subservient status to men.
The experimental community first came to national awareness when Nuru gave an interview on national television a few years ago.
Since then numerous camera crews have driven out to the northern village. They are not alone.
Government officials and members of parliament, sheikhs and priests, and local and foreign nongovernmental organization workers have made the trip via a rocky road only accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to see the success for themselves.
"I was completely captivated by my visit to the community," says Ambassador Tim Clarke, head of the European Union delegation to Ethiopia. "I regard it as the model for the world community on how gender issues should be treated. I have come across nothing else like it anywhere in Africa – and indeed the world. I am using it to inspire the work of my office here on gender mainstreaming and empowerment of women."
Once ostracized, now lauded
But achieving this level of recognition was a long time in coming.
Since his childhood, Nuru was ostracized by his family and his neighbors not only for his support for gender equality but for his opposition to institutionalized religion.
"My family is originally Muslim," Nuru says. "I visited my Christian neighbors and ate meat at their home. My mother got angry and beat me. She said, 'We can't eat meat slaughtered by Christians. I said, 'Is it not the same animal?'
"I began thinking about these issues of religion. Later I thought why not make one family? There is one God. So why not unite? Honesty and love for fellow human beings is our religion."
Not surprising, there is no picturesque church or mosque decorating the village and religious observance is shunned.
However, in a tour for visitors, locals proudly show off the simple but clean mud-built library and the classroom, where children ages 3-5 study before attending the district public school.
Nuru never had the opportunity to study and when he was 13, he was thrown out of his home, he says.
"They said I was mad," says Nuru, whose name means 'Father of the Village.'
In his 20s he became a wandering preacher of his own ideals.
"I traveled to find people who would accept my ideas," he says. In the 1980s he gathered a group in the Amhara region and together they established Awra Amba – meaning "top of the hill."
For years the small group of farmers was ostracized by neighbors who saw its ideas as radical. Eventually they were forced to abandon their land for political reasons.
Model for reducing poverty?
They returned in the early 1990s only to discover their neighbors had been given their land.
They managed to get back only 43 acres – not enough to support a growing community with farming. "So we began weaving for a living," says Nuru.
Weaving has become one of the symbols of Awra Amba.
In Ethiopian society, weaving is women's work, yet men and women work side by side here in Awra Amba.
The hand-woven scarves, clothes, and blankets are sold in the village shop. Awra Amba will not accept donations, but offers its products for sale.
Prices are low, but so is supply, partly because the village has a shortage of modern weaving machinery and training.
"Weaving is not so profitable because we are not experts," he says. "We are all originally farmers."
Fortunately, their reputation for being honest is also paying off. Donkeys laden with bags of grains wait beside the village grain mills to be unloaded.
"Neighboring farmers prefer to use our mills because they trust us not to cheat them," says Asnake Gebeyehu, 18, a native of Awra Amban who served as an English-language translator for foreign visitors on a recent day.
Awra Ambans work seven days a week and shun religious holidays.
Ideals are paying off
Their ideals have literally paid off.
The villagers are well fed and clothed. Children play instead of working.
"So many Christian and Muslim leaders from all over [Ethiopia's northern Amhara region] and some from outside have visited the village because it is very famous in its endeavor to eliminate poverty," says Mulgeta Wuletaw, a regional government administrator and member of parliament.
Still, the village hopes to earn more money in order to build potable water and sewage systems, pave the road, and create an education fund for the children.
Gebeyehu is one of eight Awra Ambans who will be attending university this year and he credits his village for that. "Education is very important to this community," he says.
The village is unique not only for its attitudes toward gender, religion, and education, but for the social security it provides its members in need.
Village social security
There's a home for the elderly with 24-hour care and a committee that helps out new mothers, who also get three months of maternity leave. Early and forced marriage are forbidden.
The village's success has made it a subject of numerous studies.
"This is an extraordinary initiative within a traditional and conservative community," says Mohammed Musa, a rural development consultant who prepared a case study on the village for the World Bank. "It's a good example for other Ethiopian communities – and even beyond Ethiopia – because of its gender equality, its work ethic, and its social security system."
Today 96 families live in closely built mud huts.
Nuru said more people want to join, but there is not enough space.
Now, after years of being ostracized, Awra Amba is seen as having a positive effect on its conservative region.
A newsletter published by the regional state health bureau last year credited the village with triggering "amazing change in the Amhara region."